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In our brand-new series, Behind the Scene, playwright Qui Nguyen shares the challenges of mounting his latest show, Six Rounds of Vengeance---
When we decided to launch Behind the Scene --- an examination of the creation of a difficult sequence as told by the playwright --- we immediately reached out to Qui Nguyen. As cofounder of the Obie Award-winning Vampire Cowboys, the fight director and playwright proudly pioneered the geek theatre genre, and his action-packed productions owe as much to kung fu and comic cons as the Bard and Broadway. His tenth Vampire Cowboys show, Six Rounds of Vengeance, is currently playing at the New Ohio Theatre. Set in a post-apocalyptic city where an ex-lawman, a young swordstress and her cursed strongman team up to seek revenge, the show was an artistic battle for Nguyen. Here's how he emerged victorious.
The hardest moments in any Vampire Cowboys show are the ones without words, the emotional crescendos in a scene. If we did musicals, these would be the occasions when the company would burst into song. In the VC universe, however, when tensions run high, music comes in the form of kicks and punches, with lyrics created through the grunts and screams of our onstage warriors battling it out with swords, fists, or found weapons. After 15 years of shows and hundreds fights, I know that the succinct stage direction "they fight" only looks simple; its execution is quite hard.
When crafting the second half of our action-adventure plays, we spend a lot of time figuring out the math of the show. How many fights? Who are they with? How do the fights progress? The first two questions are dictated by the story; the third is an aesthetic choice. For example, you wouldn't want the first battle in a three-fight show to be the best since the rest of the play would feel like a stylistic letdown. However, you don't want to consciously choreograph it too simply, because then everything leading up to the final showdown would feel like sloppy foreplay. When we ask, "How do the fights progress?" what we're really wondering is how is each fight different? Is one underwater while the next one is aerial? By carefully considering all this, the fight quality isn't compromised as we figure out how the sequences will ultimately climax.
In Six Rounds of Vengeance, the play's final movement incorporates three huge fights between our main characters. The first is between our two female leads, the second features our two male leads, and the final conflict involves multiple characters. Our usual go-to formula is "begin with real; end with theatrical." Following that rule, the battle between our two female leads is our "realistic fight" --- realistic in the sense that there are no stage tricks or "magic," even though the moves might not be "real-world logical." (It's pretty stupid to try to land a flying spin kick or cartwheel kick in an actual fight, but onstage it totally makes sense and looks awesome!) Our two female fighters, Jamie Dunn and Nicky Schmidlein, have amazing body control and flexibility. This allowed me to choreograph their battle beginning with a katana sword versus kukri knives, evolving into an unarmed sequence using capoeira and other martial arts. There are a lot of fancy kicks and aerial punches, but none of them are executed using any sort of rigging or stage effect. It really is two actors pushing their bodies to the limit for the audience's entertainment.
If the first fight is the most realistic, the last is our most theatrical. In Six Rounds of Vengeance, that theatricality is achieved with the help of VC's longtime puppet designer, David Valentine. I won't give you any spoilers, but I will say that the last show I did with David, She Kills Monsters, ended with the main character battling a five-headed dragon that was the size of the entire stage. David is good at creating jaw-dropping puppets, and the one he has built for Six Rounds is no exception. Creating a fight language that works with each puppet is always challenging. With human performers, the fight choreography may change but the techniques stay the same. However, depending on how a puppet is built and operated, we need to make a lot of adjustments based on where the puppeteer is in relation to the puppet, whether the puppet can punch and kick, how much of a beating the puppet can take, and if the puppet can do something a human performer can't. If the puppet doesn't enhance the scene or fight, it's easier and safer to use a person in face paint. But we rarely do that. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's super obvious that the puppet is going to make the show that much more amazing.
The second battle --- the one between the "realistic" fight and the "theatrical" one --- is always the hardest. It needs to be as physically dangerous as the one before but should also have a hint of theatricality, so the final fight doesn't come out of nowhere. It's a weird marriage, and in Six Rounds, combining those two disparate styles of brawling was no easy task. However, after ten-plus years of doing this, I've learned that I don't have to do it alone. In this show, we have Jon Hoche, Sheldon Best, and Tom Myers, three actors who have been part of VC's company for years (Tom since its inception). They know the physical dramaturgy of our plays, and how to collaborate within our stylistic parameters. Honestly, I don't think I could have pulled off this fight without them. These three guys knew how to translate my ideas into a battle that walks the fine line between fancy moves and stage magic. Their input defined the violent language of this battle by incorporating feats of strength and professional wrestling moves, which sets it apart from the "girls' fight." Meanwhile, a series of cool, slow-motion sequences makes it feel theatrically special yet still different from our final fight.
To me, this is the joy of creating Vampire Cowboys shows. I work with the actors directly so I feel the kinetic life of the play. Often I've made major cuts and rearranged scenes because of this intimate collaboration. I know not all playwrights are fight directors, but for me, getting the chance to take on a role other than wordsmith is a great joy, inspiration, and education, every time.
Qui Nguyen is a Brooklyn-based playwright, fight director, cofounder of the Vampire Cowboys, and self-declared geek.
Photos by Theresa Squire